|Police await visitors to Feb. 20 Montrose Borough meeting|
photo courtesy Lisa Barr
In response to a legal challenge, the Montrose Borough Council is scheduled Monday to revise a policy that limits cameras at public meetings.
The council will revisit the controversy, which stems from pressure on local elected officials amid growing news coverage of shale gas development in the small town in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Montrose, just north of Dimock Township and about 10 miles south of New York’s border, is part of a natural gas field in the heart of the Marcellus Shale. Water pollution blamed on drilling operators here has been a centerpiece of a national anti-fracking movement. That, in turn, has lead to counter protests by community members with incomes dependent on the drilling industry.
Unaccustomed to the intensity of coverage in their small town, all the council members abruptly got up and left a meeting on Feb. 8, after citizen reporter Vera Scoggins came to the meeting with a video recorder. They refused to answer questions from the press or anybody else in attendance. At the next meeting, on Feb. 14, council approved, without public comment, a policy that requires video cameras to be unmanned and mounted on tripods in the back of the room. The new rule does not allow operators to adjust or move the cameras, even if they are blocked.
Lisa Barr, a freelance reporter from Oneonta, filed for a preliminary injunction against the borough. She is represented by her sister, Deborah Barr, an attorney from Bradford County, Pa. They argued that the rule would place onerous restrictions on those trying to chronicle the council’s meetings, which deal with issues of overwhelming public interest, such as distribution of clean water from the borough to residents in Dimock with polluted wells. Town meetings in general, like courtrooms, provide critical venues for people to speak or report on sensitive and controversial events without being inhibited by the fear of libel. The Supreme Court has ruled that without this protection, known as “privilege,” the threat of libel can be used as a “legal club” that produces a “chilling effect” on free speech and hinders free government. By extension, restricting fair reporting at these forums, free speech advocates argue, also has a chilling effect.
The conflict over restrictions on video cameras was scheduled for a hearing on Monday morning in front of Susquehanna County President Judge Kenneth Seamans. But it was resolved beforehand during a meeting with the parties in the judge’s chambers, which resulted in a memorandum of agreement between the parties. A key point of the agreement: Cameras and video recorders would be allowed to be used from chairs. Additionally, an area would be designated in which reporters with hand held or shoulder mounted cameras were allowed.
Lisa went to a council meeting on Feb. 20, but did not go inside with her camera, she said, because she found the presence of several uniformed police officers at the entrance intimidating. Some journalists have been arrested, as a matter of principal, in their efforts to bring light on governmental restrictions of free speech. They include Gasland producer Josh Fox, who was arrested on Capitol Hill Feb. 1 as he attempted to tape a Congressional hearing on an EPA investigation into hydraulic fracturing – an investigation which includes testing in Dimock. Lisa Barr is uncomfortable with that tactic because, she said, “it emboldens officials in small town to arrest innocent people when they feel it gives them the upper hand.” Although Lisa Barr had legal alternatives because her sister is a lawyer, not everybody does.
Vera Scroggins, a videographer and activist who also works independently, said she is still concerned about the council’s attempts to limit and control public discussion, and the agreement between Barr and the Council did not go far enough to ease restrictions on speech. She cited another new rule, also enacted on Feb. 14, that prevents people who reside outside the borough from speaking without special permission from a council member, regardless of how they might be connected with business or interests relevant to local government affairs.
While the stipulation between Barr and the council technically resolves the legal proceeding initiated by the Barrs, it remains to be seen whether it will be passed, and if it is, whether it will change the overall tone of the meetings, which have been tense. When I asked Lisa Barr about this, she told me Council President Tom LaMont refused to shake hands with her after her sister reached the agreement with Patrick Boland, the attorney representing the borough. LaMont has publically proclaimed that he has never talked to reporters during his time as an elected official. I thought I might have better luck with Boland, so I called him to get his thoughts about whether the matter was resolved. Following the lead of his clients, he refused to comment about the proceeding or the conflict in general.